Space, quality important in garden

You may not practice the adage ”less is best,” or perhaps you would rather K.I.S.S. – keep it simple, stupid. Regardless of how you choose to make decisions, both of these cliches describe the best way to think about this year’s garden.

When I was a young gardener browsing around the garden centers in spring trying to decide what to plant and where, my habit was to buy one of as many plants as I could afford. I planted them wherever there was space, not really caring when they bloomed or what colors clashed. My goal, as it is with most young people, was to have as much as possible.

Unfortunately, that way of thinking isn’t conducive to a well-planned garden.

Since those early years, I have learned the less is best rule. I’ve learned that I don’t really need one of every plant the garden center has to offer, nor do I need to start seeds of every vegetable in the latest catalog.

Just like my first set of living room furniture, when I didn’t consider that the huge sofa and love seat just might not fit into my tiny living room, I would start hundreds of seeds in peat pots under lights in my basement, even though I couldn’t possibly have enough room in the garden to fit everything.

I ended up giving away a lot of seedlings, as well as tossing several more on the compost heap because they simply didn’t fit. And ever the optimist, the very next season I would do it again.

Which is why I began using graph paper (one square equals one foot of garden space) and mapped out my gardens each winter before I wrote that check to order seeds.

I learned that a tomato plant, complete with stake or wire cage, can take up as much as 9 square feet. I also learned that green bean plants need space in between for air circulation and that three feet of walking room between rows of lettuce, spinach, onions, leeks and just about everything else I want to plant is probably better than the one foot of space I was actually leaving. I learned that spaghetti squash, butternut squash and pumpkins grow on very long vines, so long that they tend to wander out of the garden proper and trail halfway across the yard.

My spatial issues weren’t limited just to the vegetable garden. A wise garden expert once told me, ”When you plant a tree near a fence or other structure, put it where you think it should go and then move it back another five feet.” This has become a rule of thumb for me and in some cases, it still doesn’t look like I’ve left enough room.

Yet even with learning to set limits, I will never stop trying new things. The years I planted Carouby de Maussane snow peas were delightful and I was disappointed when my seed supplier stopped selling them, but I’ve since found a new source so I expect to be planting them again.

My experience with jicama wasn’t as pleasant. I tried to grow this uncommon vegetable several years in a row, in spite of the warnings that first, jicama needs a longer growing season than we can provide; and second, even when started early indoors, seedlings do not transplant well into the garden. I defied all of the warnings and finally after three attempts in as many years, I gave up trying to grow jicama.

There was one very important lesson that I learned over my many years of planting gardens. Buying the healthiest seeds and plants will result in a better outcome. I’ve purchased inexpensive (cheap), seeds only to find that most of them didn’t germinate. I bought wrinkled and softened potato seedlings at a good price, but didn’t get much in the way of a harvest.

Likewise I paid more for fewer seeds from reputable companies and ended up thinning plants from the rows because nearly every one thrived. And in contrast to those soft, wrinkled potatoes, I’ve purchased less by weight for a higher cost from an organic grower and had more potatoes than we could eat in one season.

Some of it comes from experience and some comes from getting – and taking – good advice from experienced gardeners. Either way, when browsing those seed catalogs both from the mailbox and on the Internet, always remember that less is best and quality is much better than quantity.